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One for Aesop

Raymond Chandler is one of my all-time favorite writers, a man as skilled and precise with the written word as the best neurosurgeon is with a scalpel. Along with another of my faves, Dashiell Hammett, he was not only a pioneer in the detective-noir genre, he elevated it from mere pulp fiction to high art. As is also true of Hammett, the creator of the cynical, jaded private dick Philip Marlowe never wrote a word that I didn’t just fall completely in love with upon reading it.

Well, okay, up until he went Hollywood and started churning out eminently forgettable screenplays, that is—a move which ended up destroying him, deepening by orders of magnitude the severe depression and excessive drinking he lapsed into following the death of his wife Cissy, a loss that left him heartbroken, utterly despondent, and suicidal. Even his thoughts on his predecessor Hammett, from Chandler’s magisterial treatise on detective fiction The Simple Art Of Murder, ring with poetry and élan:

Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway. Yet for all I know, Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett, as well as from writers like Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and himself….Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish…He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself (The Glass Key) is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

Good, juicy stuff, no?

So after coming across a truly amazing free ebook-download site, I was delighted to snag a copy of The Collected Works Of Raymond Chandler, a compendium of all Chandler’s published fiction, novels and short stories both. One doesn’t just mosey over to to obtain such treasures, mind. Oh, no; as with the peerless Robert Heinlein, whose descendants are extremely protective of his work, replacing my extensive dead-tree Chandler library with ebook versions would be nothing as effortless a quest as that.

ANYHOO. Chandler had one of those fairly typical love-hate relationships with the City Of (Fallen) Angels, which glares through like a beacon in his writing; with him, the “local color” is as colorful as it gets. To wit:

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupés and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.

Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you’re not human tonight.

The air got cooler. The highway narrowed. The cars were so few now that the headlights hurt. The grade rose against chalk walls and at the top a breeze, unbroken from the ocean, danced casually across the night.

I ate dinner at a place near Thousand Oaks. Bad but quick. Feed ’em and throw ’em out. Lots of business. We can’t bother with you sitting over your second cup of coffee, mister. You’re using money space. See those people over there behind the rope? They want to eat. Anyway they think they have to. God knows why they want to eat here. They could do better home out of a can. They’re just restless. Like you. They have to get the car out and go somewhere. Sucker-bait for the racketeers that have taken over the restaurants.

Malibu. More movie stars. More pink and blue bathtubs. More tufted beds. More Chanel No. 5. More Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs. More wind-blown hair and sunglasses and attitudes and pseudo-refined voices and waterfront morals. Now, wait a minute. Lots of nice people work in pictures. You’ve got the wrong attitude, Marlowe. You’re not human tonight.

I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.

So I went to a picture show and it had to have Mavis Weld in it. One of those glass-and-chromium deals where everybody smiled too much and talked too much and knew it. The women were always going up a long curving staircase to change their clothes. The men were always taking monogrammed cigarettes out of expensive cases and snapping expensive lighters at each other. And the help was round-shouldered from carrying trays with drinks across the terrace to a swimming pool about the size of Lake Huron but a lot neater.

The leading man was an amiable ham with a lot of charm, some of it turning a little yellow at the edges. The star was a bad-tempered brunette with contemptuous eyes and a couple of bad close-ups that showed her pushing forty-five backwards almost hard enough to break a wrist. Mavis Weld played second lead and she played it with wraps on.

She was good, but she could have been ten times better. But if she had been ten times better half her scenes would have been yanked out to protect the star. It was as neat a bit of tightrope walking as I ever saw. Well it wouldn’t be a tightrope she’d be walking from now on. It would be a piano wire. It would be very high. And there wouldn’t be any net under it.

See what I mean? The above soliloquy is from The Little Sister, one of Chandler’s very best works, later bowdlerized into yet another execrable stage play and movie—the novel’s rough, jagged edges clumsily filed away with a wood rasp so as to make the thing more palatable for mass-market consumption.

But I do declare, the good, juicy stuff just don’t come any good-er or juicier than that, if you ask me. Writing that deft—that thrilling, that expressive, that smoothly flowing, always seeming to spring from out of thin nowhere and without much effort to seize you by the throat and give you a good, rough shaking—is always and forever a joy and a wonder to behold, for all who care enough about such things to go looking for them. Aesop, my friend, I hope you liked it. And if you didn’t…well, sorry, son, I really can’t help you, I’m afraid. Your malady is most likely incurable, or so I suspect.

9 thoughts on “One for Aesop

  1. He ought to check out Charles Bukowski. Back in 1982, it was the night before the Graduate Record Exam, something like the SAT but for grad school, and I was looking for something to do that wasn’t related to the test. Some friends told me that Bukowski was doing a reading on campus that evening. I got stuck doing something or other in the Chemistry Department at Emory in Atlanta (actually Decatur, right across the tracks from the CDC), looked at my watch, saw that it was 15 minutes until the reading ended. I had a choice – walk in and catch the last 10 minutes and maybe get some of the wine and cheese on offer after the talk – or say the hell with it and go home. So I figured, what the hell, why not, so I walked over and walked in late. He was finishing up, and then most of the audience went home, except for a bunch of English profs, me and a few friends, and Bukowski, who stayed to scarf up the wine and cheese. Well, that lasted for about 15 minutes, when Bukowski asked me “Where does a man get a real drink around here?” – he probably noticed my artless entrance. And of course, the answer was easy – “Jaggers, it’s right across the street” and so our group headed out, English profs and wine and cheese and literary theory just had no appeal for him – or us. A real drink was a boilermaker – a shot of whiskey chased by a glass of cold beer… It was 9 pm when we headed over, I figured on staying for an hour and going home, waking up in good shape to take the test. Yeah, right. I ordered a Jagger burger with cheese and fries, figuring that that would blunt the effect of the alcohol and if I’d left at 10 pm, it would have. He was a spellbinding conversationalist, the next time I looked at my watch it was 11 pm. I got up, told him I had to go, and why, and he said “Stick around, kid, don’t worry, you’ll do fine”. Turned out he knew a lot about Kansas City, especially the area around Union Station and the bars just up the hill, which I knew as well – and Kelly’s in Westport, which was in what used to be Jim Bridger’s old dry goods store – the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails started right outside the front door. Anyhow, we wound up closing the place down at two in the morning. I had had a memorable time – it’s 41 years on, and I remember it as if it were a movie. I made it home, set the alarm clock, holding on to the walls to slow down the spinning, woke up 15 minutes after the alarm went off, walked into the test still with the spins – 20 minutes late, and finished three hours later, stone cold sober, no hangover. Got the results back, Bukowski was right, I blew it away, averaged in the 95th percentile, good enough to get into MENSA – and grad school at the University of Florida… Check this out –

  2. Amigo, I can go you one better.
    My family lived that exact landscape, and before it was Ventura Boulevard, it was Ventura Highway, as in “the way to get from L.A. to Ventura” since Spanish conquistadors along El Camino Real, the King’s highway, before there even was a freeway in sight. You could see the lights of the cars coming and going over the hill hence from our back porch, and you could hear the traffic from the back yard, over the split rail fence and across the endless bean and strawberry fields that stretched way off to the south, and no houses south of us for miles until that road. My older brother used to catch frogs in the creek before they paved it for a flood control channel.

    Anyone who wants it can have the Rotten Apple of NYFC.
    The finest noir stories are set in L.A., and long have been. Including such modern gems as Chinatown, The Two Jakes, Bladerunner, Terminator, and Into The Night.

    Thanks for the prose tip.
    BTW, don’t overlook the classic pulp detective works of another small-time author who also camped out in L.A. for a spell or three. You may have heard of him.
    Guy name of Louis L’Amour. 😉

    1. Man, my Uncle Murray (the guy who taught me to play guitar) was a HUGE L’Amour fan. I never have checked him out myself, an egregious oversight I’ve been meaning to correct for years now. Gotta get cracking on that soon.

      Oh, and: GREAT Bukowski story, hh! He’s another longtime favorite of mine, ever since a girl I was dating back in my NYC days put me onto him in, what, 90, 91 or so? “I COME FROM SAN PEDROOO…TO PUT REDONDO BEACH ON THE MAP.” Another one who, about every other page, will put down a line that makes you sit up straight and captures your entire attention as fast as a good, hard punch in the mouth will.

      1. Shortly before his death he released some anthologies of his better pulp work that was outside readers’ expectations of his Western genre work. IIRC, one was adventure stories that put Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain to shame, and the other was noir pulp works.

        Both were the equal of anything about the Sacketts, or anyone else west of the Mississippi before indoor plumbing.

        1. IIRC, most of what my uncle had was the Westerns, which I was never much interested in, either movies or books. That’s my only excuse for not having looked into L’Amour before, although I was aware even back then that he had written more than just the cowboyz ‘n’ injunses stuff. I’ma gonna get myself over to the free-ebook download site I mentioned above and see what I can dig up.

          1. I came by L’Amour honestly:
            When you’re in the dotMil sitting in the middle of nowhere, you’ll read anything. MRE wrappers. Anything.
            And as luck would have it, the first book (out of everything he wrote) I happened to grab off the rack at the PX was the one western that wasn’t one, and set in modern times (the 1960s, when he wrote it), and only touched on the frontier stuff in flashbacks. And it was, in fact, a murder mystery. Horses and saddles were involved, but so were station wagons.
            What are the odds, right?

            After that, the second one was indeed a western, but I was literally at the places he was mentioning, and could see the ridges and canyons.
            I was in the Mojave Desert at 29 Palms, and reading a Sackett novel, Mojave Crossing.
            I gotta say, reading a western when you’re looking at the peaks and valleys he’s talking about in a novel makes it a lot more interesting.

            After that, I picked up The Walking Drum.
            Princess Bride by way of Treasure Island and Lord Of The Rings: i.e. epic medieval adventure, from Normandy to Persia, and back.

            That hooked me enough to read everything else he wrote, until his death. The pity is that he never wrote a sequel to TWD. It was epic.

            The only book he wrote that sucked was the last one released before he died. The butter was slipping off of his waffles by that point.

            You can’t get free downloads, give a holler; I’ll send you some hard copy paperbacks.

            1. Mucho gracias, brother. I already done downloaded “Yondering” from the Oceans Of PDF site, in epub format, and plan to pick up more of ’em over the weekend. That place has so much good stuff it amounts to one of of those “don’t know whether to shit or go blind” situations.

              Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a damned fine problem to have.

              Your recommendations are most appreciated, believe you me.

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